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Top reads of 2021

Happy New Year from all of us here at Ancient World Magazine! We have a look back at some of our most popular stuff from last year. Perhaps this will entice you to root around for hidden treasures?

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Almost every year, I look back at what our most popular articles were in the previous year, regardless of when they were published. It might be more interesting to look at the ten least read articles, but that wouldn’t exactly be a lot of fun for the authors, and I find it a rather depressing exercise myself. So a top 10 list, then, to keep the “content” going, of what Google Analytics tells me were the most popular reads in 2021.

The most popular article from last year was Branko van Oppen’s “Was Cleopatra beautiful?” Originally published in 2018, Google keeps funelling those curious about Cleopatra’s looks to Ancient World Magazine. It’s no surprise that this article always ranks high.

The Second most popular article in our list is “The Spartans at war” (2019), written by Roel Konijnendijk. Based on a thread posted on Reddit’s AskHistorians, the article deals with common misconceptions about the ancient Spartans’ supposed military reputation.

Two articles of mine occupy that third and fourth spots. “The death of Seneca”, also published in 2018, deals with a topic that I happened to have read about in the course of working for an independent publisher in Leiden. “Making ancient Greek vases” (2018) deals with how the ancient Greeks made black- and red-figure pottery, and it seems to be popular among students.

Winged Victory” (2018), about the Hellenistic Nike of Samothrace, ranked as last year’s fifth most read article. It was written by Cindy Meijer and Branko van Oppen. “Not just lions in the Colosseum” (2020), written by Mauro Poma, comes in at number six, which is not surprising given the subject matter.

The last four spots feature articles written by me. “Augustus of Prima Porta” (2018) again finds a spot in the top ten of our most popular articles, followed closely by the Alexander Mosaic (2018). The ninth most popular article read last year is – rather surprisingly – my article on the names of ancient Greek ships (2019). The tenth spot is taken by “Roman girls in ‘bikinis’” (2018), about a mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale.

Making sense of the results

So those were the ten most popular articles on the website as tracked by Google Analytics. As you can see, it’s mostly articles from 2018, two from 2019, and one from 2020. None of the articles published in 2021 ranked in the top ten or even, as far as I can tell, in the top 50. No doubt, age of the articles in question plays a role: the older articles have had more time for their search results to solidify, for external links to them to be added, and so on.

But I think that a lot of the articles that we published in 2021 cover the topics that simply are not as popular. This has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the articles. We know for a fact, thanks to e-mails and to link sources revaled through Google Analytics, that some of the less popular articles, as well as Bad Ancient articles, are being used by educators, including at colleges and universities.

But when it comes to what material of ours gets the most eyeballs, it’s pretty obvious from the top 10 list above that it’s the articles that deal with Hellenistic and Roman subjects. Only three articles cover an earlier era, namely Archaic and – mainly – Classical Greece. One of those deals with how the Greeks made black- and red-figure pottery, one deals with Greek ship names, and one deals with – who else? – the Spartans.

It’s no secret that Hellenistic and Roman stuff does well. This was also my experience when I was the editor of paper magazines on the ancient world. You can publish as much as you like about the Aegean Bronze Age (heaven knows I try!), Scythian horsemen, or Early Iron Age warfare, but it will never do as well as something about Seleucid war machines, Roman mosaics, let alone Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, or other historical figures that loom large in the popular imagination.

Last year, we published a lot of stuff that I think was really good, but it mostly caters to a much smaller crowd. This has also been reflected in our visitor numbers: 2021 marks the first year in which visitors to the website actually decreased when compared to earlier years. And the numbers didn’t decrease by a small amount. They decreased by a lot: we’re talking about a third fewer visitors to the website in December 2021 when compared to December 2020.

Where to go from here?

A strictly commercial endeavour would draw an obvious conclusion from the foregoing: stop writing about stuff that few people care about, and focus on the “big topics”. That means more content that deals with Hellenistic and Roman stuff, and more articles, podcasts, and whatnot about famous historical figures like Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Augustus, Julius Caesar, and so on.

However, that’s not what we’re going to do. The reason for that is twofold.

First, I am the main writer for this website, with hundreds of articles to my name. My interests are mostly pre-Classical, and have over the course of the last few years shifted toward the Bronze Age. I still ocassionally write about the Archaic period, sometimes even the Classical period of ancient Greece, but that’s it. I hardly ever write about Roman stuff, although when I do, it tends to – predictably – do a lot better than my other stuff. But I am not a specialist when it comes to the Roman world; those few articles in that field that I have written happen to be about those few aspects that I do know something about.

Second, finding financial support for the website has been difficult. Patreon is our only source of income, and it currently generates enough to pay for one article a month.It would be great if we could massively expand our Patreon base, but since we’ve been at this for quite a few years, I won’t be holding my breath. It’s a lot more difficult for a website like ours to find support among a general audience than it is for, say, a Twitch streamer or someone who takes apart movies on a YouTube channel. Again, that has to do with our chosen niche – and it’s definitely a niche.

If we want to add more content about the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, we need contributors to write about those topics. And that means we will need to pay them, because wrangling volunteers to do things for the website doesn’t seem fair. I already feel bad about my co-editors – Matt, Josh, Owen, and Jo – devoting time to Ancient World Magazine without getting much if anything in return.

So what is the solution? For me, it means diversifying. I have worked on Ancient World Magazine for the past four years, ever since we launched in November of 2017, and I don’t think it serves a purpose to try and keep doing the same thing for what are essentially diminishing returns. My main focus, moving forward, will be to work more on videos and podcasts, and hope that we can attract more supporters on Patreon this way.

Ancient World Magazine also cannot continue in its present form. Bad Ancient was recently moved to a new location, a subdomain of this website. But more drastic measures are needed. The two websites need to be united on a single domain, and that new website needs to be able to support other projects and activities as well.

Merging the two websites and creating something bigger to fold them into will take time. I will focus on this work in January and February, so that the new website can be launched in March . Old URLs will continue to work, just as they continue to do for Bad Ancient at present (you may need to refresh your browser’s cache). The new website will, hopefully, make it easier to find what you’re looking for while cutting down on overhead for me.

Ancient World Magazine isn’t going away, but it is going to change. For now, I will strive to publish something every Wednesday, but don’t be surprised if a week or two goes by without any fresh content. The changes that I’m working on will take some time, so I ask for your patience in the meantime. And if you want to support us, do consider becoming a Patron: it’s the best way to show that what we do gets appreciated.

Watch this space!

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